Poster Design: The Posters of Akiko Stehrenberger

One my great passions is poster art, as anyone who knows me is well aware. I love the combination of illustration, advertising, referential imagery, typography, and stylistic variety I see in so many posters for film, tv, bands, and events. One of the biggest downsides to being interested in poster design is that so often artists are not credited for their work- I’m often lucky if I can make out a small signature to go by, especially on older designs. With a lot of independent films turning to illustrators and fine artists for their posters, it’s even more disappointing this is so frequently happens today. Gorgeous movie posters are unveiled and few press releases or film news sites include artist names unless it’s a Mondo release or some big name. Since I want to write about poster designers on here anyway, I’m going to start highlighting artists whose work is likely familiar to filmgoers but whose names might not be as known. I’m starting with an easy one because there’s already been some articles written about her, and because I absolutely love her work: Akiko Stehrenberger.

I first became aware of Stehrenberger as an artist through her breathtaking poster for Kiss of the Damned, which honestly stopped me in my tracks. It’s the kind of poster that makes me rethink how the film’s trailer looked terrible. It’s the kind of poster I’d be happy to have on my wall regardless of whether I’d enjoyed or even seen the film. It is, in short, a damn good poster. And I immediately wanted to know more about its designer. Originally based in New York, Stehrenberger began her career doing magazine illustration. When she moved back to Los Angeles in 2004 she started designing movie posters, though she has also worked in advertising, toy design, and portraiture. As an artist she has been devoted to hand-drawn illustration, often rendering posters in paint and graphite, but she has become equally adept at digital production. Her style is incredibly diverse, but is perhaps most distinguished by a free use of color, spare use of text, figural subjects,  and incorporation of freehand visual details.

akiko-stehrenberger-funnygamesAkiko Stehrenberger: Funny Games, 2007. via IMPAwards

One of Stehrenberger’s most high-profile designs to date is her poster for Michael Haneke’s 2007 remake of Funny Games. She pulled a screenshot depicting a frightened Naomi Watts in close-up, and turned it into a photorealistic digital painting. It is the perfect moment to capture from the film: the character is obviously scared and pained, with teary eyes and unkempt hair, but there is a hint of defiance in her expression that relates to the progression of the story. The image is clouded with noise, nearly disguising the fact that this is in fact a digital painting and not a simple film still- perhaps a subtle reference to Haneke’s essential copying of himself in remaking his own film, or to the inherent artifice of film as a medium. The type is simple and direct, allowing the illustration to do most of the work, aided by the fantastically chilling tagline, “You must admit, you brought this on yourself.” Cited as her personal favorite of her designs, Stehrenberger says, “I fought really, really hard for Funny Games to come out the way it did. I don’t think I ever fought harder for any of my designs. The client kept wanting to add something to it, like a gloved hand, or blood, and I believed strongly that it was strong enough and haunting on its own” (Mubi: Movie Poster of the Week interview).

As much as I love the bold, disturbing visual of the Funny Games poster, it’s generally her more colorful, playful work to which I’m drawn. Her work for The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology–a film I haven’t seen and admittedly don’t know much about–is a psychedelic portrait of philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek. Rendered in vibrant pink and purple ink, his gruff personage is surrounded by religious and military figures, rainbow bridges, rolling green fields, cowboys, and lovers. The composition presents a strange, varied, eclectic documentary, referencing politics, Hollywood, 1960s counter-culture, and Christianity in its visual sources and color scheme: appropriate for a movie about how media reinforces certain belief systems. The style recalls hand-drawn indie band gig posters while bringing in allusions to Socialist Realism and Soviet design. I absolutely love the inky, freehand lines and garish colors, it’s just a really appealing image.

Akiko Stehrenberger - Pervert's Guide to IdeologyAkiko Stehrenberger: The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, 2012. via IMPAwards

Akiko Stehrenberger is committed to maintaining a level of artistry and innovation in the poster industry. She does the kind of work that got me excited about poster design in the first place, the kind of eye-catching, referential, detailed visuals that don’t just sell a film but really sell themselves. Over the past decade she has created several memorable designs for indie films (she prefers independent over studio movies because she generally has more creative control), and regardless of the films’ quality I can always view her posters as autonomous works of art. I especially love the painterly approach she takes to most of her works, even her digital designs, as it is reminiscent of the great illustrated posters of the pre-digital age. Of her work’s unique place in the greater scheme of things, she says, “I’d be lying if I said it was my intention to try to change the industry when I first got into it. My main goal was to do work I was proud of and eventually people started appreciating it and asking for more of it. Leaving a small influence and getting to work with some of the best creative directors in this industry, is just the cherry on top!” (Japan Cinema interview).

Incidentally, Stehrenberger is also one of the few female designers who’s really made a name for herself in the typically male-dominated field, and I just think that’s really cool.

akiko-stehrenberger-casa-de-mi-padrejpgAkiko Stehrenberger: Casa de mi Padre, 2012. via IMPAwards

fathers_day_ver2_xlgAkiko Stehrenberger: Father’s Day, 2012. via IMPAwards

12_awaywego_planeAkiko Stehrenberger: Away We Go, 2009. via H Represents

akikomatic_herAkiko Stehrenberger: Her, 2014. via H Represents

akiko_undertheskin-hrepresents-comAkiko Stehrenberger: Under the Skin, 2014. via H Represents

Akiko Stehrenberger - Code UnknownAkiko Stehrenberger: Code Unknown, 2000. Blu-ray cover. via H Represents

blue_ruin_ver3_xxlgAkiko Stehrenberger: Blue Ruin, 2014. via IMPAwards

Akiko Stehrenberger - Kiss of the DamnedAkiko Stehrenberger: Kiss of the Damned, 2013. via IMPAwards

28_seriousman2Akiko Stehrenberger: A Serious Man, 2009. via H Represents


Akikomatic. Akiko Stehrenberger’s official site.

Adrian Curry. “Movie Poster of the Week: An Interview with ‘Funny Games’ Poster Designer Akiko Stehrenberger.”, 2010.

Creative Spotlight: Episode #199 – Akiko Stehrenberger.” Japan Cinema, 2013.

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